Paul Ryan on Europe

Compared to Ryan's budgets, Cameron's coalition looks positively profligate.

As a congressman, Paul Ryan hasn't turned his gaze overseas all that often. He is far too busy focusing on important domestic issues like changing the taxation on arrow shafts from a 12.5 per cent of sales to a 39¢ flat tax to spend time worrying about the Old World.

But he has made two notable, on-the-record, contributions to debates happening on this side of the pond.

The first was in 2009, when he co-authored a Wall Street Journal article about the perils of socialised medicine.

The piece, titled Beware of the Big-Government Tipping Point, was published in January 2009, the day before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, and is a strongly worded attack on the then-nascent idea of Obamacare.

In the piece, Ryan touches on the NHS, arguing that:

We need only look to Great Britain and elsewhere to see the effects of socialized health care on the broader economy. Once a large number of citizens get their health care from the state, it dramatically alters their attachment to government.

This line has been ramped up in the re-reporting of it, becoming a "savaging" in the Times, where Sam Coates suggested that Ryan had claimed "that free healthcare distorts the democratic process". The truth is that the pieces more mild, more wonkish, and even partially correct – although deeply cynical.

He is right,because it is obvious to anyone that the American attitude to government is clearly different to the British one. For all that some on the right of the Conservative party love to repeat Ronald Reagan's famous quote about Government being the problem, that view is only really held by the fringes of European society - as opposed to the US, where it is the mainstream opinion.

It's only partly right, though, because he's clearly overstating the effect healthcare has. Attachment to the state comes from more than just getting your medicine from The Man. It is experiencing a caring state full stop which changes how a nation sees the role of government.

And it's deeply cynical because he seems to be arguing that a government should stay deliberately bad – should stop doing good things, and only do things which will anger its citizens – because otherwise people will realise that big government isn't such a bad thing.

It's putting the cart before the horse. If Ryan thinks universal healthcare is bad, he should have the courage to let the voters decide whether they agree with him – not prevent them from getting healthcare because they might realise he's wrong.

Ryan's other moment touching on British issues came in 2011. He was given the opportunity to make the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address (roughly analogous to the Queen's speech, in that it lays out the legislative agenda for the year ahead). He argued:

If we continue down our current path, we know what our future will be. Just take a look at what’s happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe. They didn’t act soon enough; and now their governments have been forced to impose painful austerity measures: large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody.

Lumping together "Greece, Ireland and the United Kingdom" betrays a basic lack of comprehension of the extreme differences between the crises in those three countries.

For one thing, there is no way that America could ever (in the foreseeable future) face crises similar to those of Ireland and Greece. Simplifying matters enormously, Greece's problems were borne from corrupt governments systematically lying on national accounts to enter the Euro, running spiralling deficits once the cheap credit became available, and having no recourse to the currency markets when the truth came out.

Ireland, meanwhile, suffered a hangover from a privately financed housing boom which turned into a privately financed housing bust, a banking crisis which required a government bailout, and, again, the straightjacket imposed by the Euro combined with German intransigence aggravating the whole matter.

And if Ryan was seriously suggesting that following Obama's vision for America could take the country in the direction of the UK, he needed to take a look in a mirror.

Even in 2011, it was clear that the UK did not have any particular debt crisis, and that overzealous attempts to deal with the deficit were harming demand and compounding the error. Construction spending had fallen, confidence had been slammed and the VAT rise had just been introduced.

Of course, for all that Ryan looked economically illiterate comparing the three at the time –and he did – in hindsight, he looks even worse. The Conservatives, we now know, inherited recovery and turned it into recession, and they did that through targeted application of austerity. But compared to Paul Ryan's budgets, the Coalition looks positively profligate.

The VP pick has not got a perfect track record talking about things outside his expertise, then. I'd suggest he stick to areas he knows about, but it's becoming rapidly questionable whether there actually are any. Maybe he should just keep quiet and be a pretty face on the campaign trail.


Paul Ryan. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.